Robert D. Kaplan: "Revenge of Geography"
Robert Kaplan has an excellent (though disputed) article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy (May/June 2009): "The Revenge of Geography." Although his article is global in scope, emphasizing the role played by geography in conflicts along what he calls "shatter zones" (reminiscent of Huntington's "fault lines" between civilizations, except geographic rather than religious), it has some especially significant observations about the specific case of Pakistan:
Of course, the worst nightmare on the subcontinent is Pakistan, whose dysfunction is directly the result of its utter lack of geographic logic. The Indus should be a border of sorts, but Pakistan sits astride both its banks, just as the fertile and teeming Punjab plain is bisected by the India-Pakistan border. Only the Thar Desert and the swamps to its south act as natural frontiers between Pakistan and India. And though these are formidable barriers, they are insufficient to frame a state composed of disparate, geographically based, ethnic groups -- Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis, and Pashtuns -- for whom Islam has provided insufficient glue to hold them together. All the other groups in Pakistan hate the Punjabis and the army they control, just as the groups in the former Yugoslavia hated the Serbs and the army they controlled. Pakistan's raison d'être is that it supposedly provides a homeland for subcontinental Muslims, but 154 million of them, almost the same number as the entire population of Pakistan, live over the border in India.Geography, ethnicity, and religion -- a witches' brew that makes up the dysfunctional state that we know as Pakistan. We're rather far from Francis Fukuyama's End of History and the Last Man, which saw human history as a struggle between ideologies that had reached its Hegelian goal of liberal democracy. But we're also not precisely in those civilizations where Samuel P. Huntington placed us, either, for the Islamic civilization that ought to glue Pakistan together is a rather weak binding agent, given the corrosive acid of ethnicity. The good news in what Kaplan shows is that the Taliban, being an expression of Pashtun nationalism, will encounter resistance from the Punjabis who rule Pakistan and wouldn't want their nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of a different ethnic group. We can therefore expect the Pakistan army to show more resistance than it previously did, for the stakes have been raised by the Taliban's push beyond the Swat Valley.
To the west, the crags and canyons of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan, are utterly porous. Of all the times I crossed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, I never did so legally. In reality, the two countries are inseparable. On both sides live the Pashtuns. The wide belt of territory between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus River is really Pashtunistan, an entity that threatens to emerge were Pakistan to fall apart. That would, in turn, lead to the dissolution of Afghanistan.
The Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism. Indeed, much of the fighting in Afghanistan today occurs in Pashtunistan: southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. The north of Afghanistan, beyond the Hindu Kush, has seen less fighting and is in the midst of reconstruction and the forging of closer links to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, inhabited by the same ethnic groups that populate northern Afghanistan. Here is the ultimate world of Mackinder, of mountains and men, where the facts of geography are asserted daily, to the chagrin of U.S.-led forces -- and of India, whose own destiny and borders are hostage to what plays out in the vicinity of the 20,000-foot wall of the Hindu Kush.
Or can we? Another scholar, Thomas Barfield, raises some doubts, noting the rise of Islamic radicalism within Pakistan's heavily Pashtun Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its previously secular army:
A lot of people in the ISI are Pashtuns because they had the language skills. During the Soviet War period, [Mohammad] Zia ul-Haq began Islamizing the army. Before, the army was fairly resolutely secular, but since the '80s you saw a greater and greater influence of Islamists in the army as well as the ISI. By the time they were helping the Taliban, some [army officials] were highly sympathetic to this idea of a Wahhabi-style Islamic state. Pakistan was formed as a state for Muslims separated off from India -- its name means "land of the religiously pure" -- and it's always been like, "Well, are we Muslim enough?" (Michael Mechanic, "Could Pakistan Dissolve Altogether? (Interview with Thomas Barfield)" Mother Jones, May/June 2009)Barfield worries not just about a Pashtun attempt to take over Pakistan but also about even a failed Pastun attempt to grab the entire country if Pakistan's army holds steady and manages to keep the Punjab region for itself in the ensuing chaos:
The army has always stood to prevent that [sort of takeover], so presumably if they would hold on to the army, the army would hold on to Punjab and prevent things from getting out of hand. But then the question would be, if it starts to fall apart like that, would India feel the need to make a preemptive strike to go after the nukes? (Mechanic, "Could Pakistan Dissolve")This is where things get really scary . . . and even scarier is the recognition that the world is full of 'Pakistans'! Perhaps not nuclear-armed ones, but increasingly militarized "shatter zones" destabilized by the tyranny of geography.
I have seen the future, and it is murder.
UPDATE: Commentor John B. (below) links to a strong and informed rebuttal of Kaplan at the Registan blog.